By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
E. Milner Irvin III made his Unlimited debut in 1974 at the wheel of the community-owned MISS MADISON (U-6). Milner was a last-minute addition to the MISS M team when 1973 driver Tom Sheehy departed to accept another assignment.
Irvin qualified as an Unlimited driver at the Champion Spark Plug Regatta in Miami…and nearly won the race! He finished third overall and defeated the winners, Howie Benns and MISS BUDWEISER, in the Final Heat.
A veteran of the Florida Limited circuit, Milner started as the younger half of a father-and-son inboard racing team. In the beginning, his Dad would drive and he was the crewman. In later years, their positions were reversed with the son as the driver and the father as the crewman.
At the end of his rookie Unlimited year, Irvin occupied fourth-place in a field of 27 drivers in National High Points. In addition to his Miami performance, Milner finished third in the Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison and third in the Admiral’s Cup at Jacksonville, Florida.
Other noteworthy performances with the U-6 team were a second in the 1978 Tri-Cities (Washington) Columbia Cup and a second in the 1981 Indiana Governor’s Cup.
He drove two different versions of the MISS MADISON. These were the 1972 Gale Enterprises hull that raced until 1977 and the former 1973 PAY ‘n PAK hull, which was acquired by the City of Madison in 1978.
Irvin drove MISS MADISON off and on for ten years. In 1981 at Acapulco, Mexico, Milner risked his own life when he spun MISS M at high speed to avoid running over the fatally injured Bill Muncey, driver of ATLAS VAN LINES.
He hooked to the right with a craft engineered to turn to the left. Irvin was thrown violently around in the MISS MADISON’s open cockpit and suffered painful--but not permanent--injuries.
Milner had one of his best seasons in 1975 with Bob Fendler’s LINCOLN THRIFT (U-55). The boat had failed the year before with Mickey Remund as driver. But with Irvin, the U-55 ended up third behind PAY ‘n PAK and WEISFIELD’S in National Points. LINCOLN THRIFT also took second in the Kentucky Governor’s Cup at Owensboro.
The 1975 Tri-Cities Gold Cup was a heartbreaker for Milner. He guided the turbo-Allison-powered cabover hull to first-place in Heats 1-A and 3-B and took second in the finale. In Heat 2-B, Irvin was leading by a wide margin--and in line for 400 first-place points--when he conked out three-quarters of a lap from the checkered flag. LINCOLN THRIFT nevertheless finished third in total points with 1100, compared to PAY 'n PAK with 1425 and MISS U.S. with 1225.
At Seattle in 1975, Milner was sprinting toward the first turn of the Final Heat when he encountered a roostertail full in the face from Bill Muncey in ATLAS VAN LINES and went dead in the water. The LINCOLN THRIFT’s windshield was knocked off and Irvin suffered an eye injury. He restarted after the leader had finished lap-three and completed the race. Upon returning to the pits, Milner collapsed in the cockpit.
An outraged Bob Fendler demanded that Muncey be disqualified and suspended from racing. But Chief Referee Bill Newton ruled that no foul had occurred.
The LINCOLN THRIFT team retired after 1975. Irvin briefly handled Gene Benning’s MYR SHEET METAL in 1976 and Mike Wolfbauer’s SAVAIR’S PROBE in 1978 but did not land another full-time Unlimited ride until rehired by the MISS MADISON team in late-season 1978.
After sitting out the 1982 campaign, Milner joined forces with owner Jerry Schoenith as driver of the AMC-sponsored MISS RENAULT. This was a happy association for Irvin that lasted for two years. It was with MISS RENAULT that Milner made his claim to fame.
At Houston, Texas, in 1983, he won the World Championship Race, sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating. Boats from all over the world showed up to compete. These included Renato Molinari’s LOUIE’S ON THE LAKE from Italy and MISS BAYSWATER BULK from Australia. In all, eighteen boats attended, making it the largest field for an Unlimited gathering in a number of years.
MISS RENAULT with its turbocharged Allison engine wasn’t the fastest boat in the race. But it was the most reliable.
There was a lot of equipment damage that weekend. ATLAS VAN LINES fell victim to a hole in its sponson; MISS BUDWEISER blew a supercharger.
When the checkered flag dropped in the winner-take-all Final Heat, it was Irvin first, followed by Jimbo McConnell in MISS USA second and Molinari third. No one else finished. It may not have been the way the MISS RENAULT team wanted to win--by attrition. But it was an important victory for them nonetheless.
Only seldom have World Championship Races been run for the Unlimited Class, which makes each race extra special. The tradition dates back to 1938. That was when the Italian Count Theo Rossi won the title with his Isotta-Fraschini-powered ALAGI.
Milner Irvin drove his last race in 1987 with FRANK KENNEY TOYOTA/VOLVO. A few years later, Bob Hughes, the board chairman of MISS MADISON, approached Milner about returning to the U-6 team once again.
Irvin was sorely tempted. He wrote down a list of the reasons for returning to competition and those opposed. The reasons opposed outnumbered the reasons for returning. So Milner said thanks, but no thanks, and called it a career.